Friday, June 26, 2015

When in Shetland...

Buy wool. Especially with it being the coldest summer since 1947 (or so I'm told). Tonight is certainly cold. And windy. With fog that's in two minds about turning into rain. None of this matters because we're inside with a nice fire, a glass of something good, and an increasingly impressive collection of woolly products. It's also only fair to mention that yesterday ended up being a beautiful day - nice enough to brave swimming in the sea and with a perfect simmer dim night to follow.

When I decided I wanted to relearn how to knit earlier this year my end ambition was to play about with Fair Isle patterns. I'm doing quite well on this score - the colourful stuff is basically easy to do, at least it is when tackling a simple thing like a square (I haven't yet attempted any shaping, following of patterns, or otherwise complicated things). I'm half way through what will be an extremely colourful cushion cover. The motifs I'm using (it will be pictured when I eventually finish it) are more generally Scandinavian than specific to Shetland; traditional Fair Isle uses 5 colours in a design, no more than 2 in any given row, and with no more than 5 stitches between colour changes. The colour changes keep it interesting, it's hard to get lost because you can always see exactly where you are, and altogether it's been very encouraging.

The thing I've found most difficult about it is the something I really didn't expect to be a problem. Choosing colour ways. I had a brief Shetland visit back in March when I bought lots of yarn to play with, this time with longer to think about it I'm buying as much as I think I can squeeze into my case (currently a young sacks worth) in as many shades as I can. This is a way of putting colour together that I need to learn about.

My colour sense is built around dealing with it in blocks and stripes, I like subtle variations and rich but not necessarily bright shades. That doesn't work in Fair Isle type designs. Traditional colours based on available dyes and whatever sheep were wearing that year provide a limited but very effective palate, chemical dyes have however created a world of temptation that requires more thought to navigate.

With this in mind I've forced myself to buy things I'd never normally look at, which I find almost offensive to the eye (I'm looking at the scarlet and very yellow wool particularly) but which I think (hope) might work really well used sparingly in a design. We'll see. Meanwhile I've been buying gloves, both for inspiration and use, and am hoping to master simple lace designs when winter comes.


If it's seemed quite around here for the last week or so it's because I've been on holiday (I still am), making the annual trip back to my homeland of Shetland. It's good to be back, even in what is apparently the coldest summer since 1947. (Coats and gloves on to eat ice cream, and no swimming in the sea - so far).

I packed a lovely collection of well chosen books but have failed to open any of them, which I felt bad about for the first few days, but now I'm beginning to think a holiday from reading might not be such a terrible thing. Unread books aren't something I should be fretting over and I can't deny that some more outdoorsy type activities are doing me good. I went swimming in the sea today. It was very, very, cold. But good.

Meanwhile I've obviously been acquiring books, and wool, lots and lots of wool - mostly in the form of yarn but also as delightful knitted products too. I don't know how many pairs of gloves a person should look to buy on their summer holidays but so far I've bought 3.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waterloo bicentenary

Thanks to my youthful love of Georgette Heyer there was a time in my early teens when I could probably have given a fairly accurate description of Wellington's progress across Europe and an almost blow by blow account of the Battle of Waterloo itself. That was back when Wellington's image still decorated £5 notes (and when a £5 represented considerable wealth - or was at least equivalent to 2.5 new Georgette Heyer's) as well as innumerable pub signs. A familiar, mostly heroic figure, his victories traceable in street names, church monuments, public statues, and local museums across the country, he still pops up regularly in costume dramas and is responsible for some cracking good quotes.

Wellington's art collection, specifically the bulk of the Spanish royal collection that fell into his hands, featured in my undergraduate dissertation so I visited both Apsley House (impressive) and Stratfield Saye (comfortably shabby) to stare at the pictures, and perhaps pick up some more romanticised ideas about the man and his career in the process, especially his most famous victory.

There are good reasons to commemorate this date, to think about what it's meant to us and our idea of  who we are as a nation but, and this is thanks again to Georgette Heyer, it's the personal element that really fascinates me. She might have given accounts of troop movements detailed enough to make them required reading at Sandhurst, but she made it human enough to keep a reader (this reader) tense with concern for her hero's and their friends. Maybe the best account is in 'A Civil Contract' when the hero in question is no longer a soldier but has instead staked his whole financial future on the outcome of the battle. We wait with him for news to reach London - will it be success or failure? The clubs are full of armchair generals foretelling doom, the mood is grim, friends are over there fighting for their lives, and all we can do is wait. I still get goosebumps every time I reach the passage where the news finally comes through.

This is absolutely why I was so moved to find a cutting from The Times making those first tentative reports of victory amongst a collection of family odds and ends. I'm hoping dad still has the tin box it resided in, along with dull accounts from local papers of hatches, matches, and dispatches from a hundred years later. If he does maybe he'll let me have another look for it. What I wonder about, and will never know the answer to, is who cut it out? Where they Whig or Tory, was a family member or loved one there? I think they must have been for it to have been kept so long. Or was it a souvenir for a patriotic schoolboy? And why in a box of cuttings all saved because of some mention of family, and collected between around 1900 and 1920 (if memory serves, I found this stuff 20 years ago and more) had someone still kept it. Was it just a curiosity by then, or some sort of lucky charm whilst more battles were being fought in Belgium?

meanwhile back in 2015 I have some vague intention of marking the occasion by reading something. Possibly a selection of Wellington's dispatches (though they might be a little dry), maybe Scott's description of Waterloo which I see Vintage have just produced a nice copy of. I will try and visit Apsley house again, if only to marvel at the giant nude marble Naploeon under the stairs (truly a present for the conquering hero who already had everything else), and I don't mind admitting to a passing desire for a commemorative mug and some Fortnums Waterloo tea to drink out of it (features a lot of gunpowder tea, and sounds like a blend I'll enjoy). The last two are silly things really, but I like commemorative bits and bobs, they give me hope that we might yet learn from history.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Good things coming from Pushkin Press

This post is by way of being a public service announcement for a couple of new books from Pushkin Press. I had been eying up 'The Brethren' after amazon recommended it, it's the first in a series of 13 French historical novels set in the 16th century and looked like it might be something D and I would both enjoy - making it an ideal present for him. It was a bonus then when the really lovely publicity woman from Pushkin emailed last week to see if I might like a review copy and if I could mention it before Father's Day I was happy to say yes to both. 

The book landed on my doorstep last night - and looks particularly attractive, the fiver design is great. I'm off on holiday at the end of the week (where I will be seeing dad in time for Father's Day and everything) so might well take 'The Brethren' with me (though it should probably be a Trollope). 

What 'The Brethren' promises is swashbuckling, lively adventure, and historical fiction at its very best (that's what the quotes say). The series (Fortunes of France) covers 26 years of tempestuous French history including "religious strife, famine, pestilence, bands of robbers...and, of course, the English." If it delivers half of that I'll be happy, the whole lot - well then, very happy indeed, and a good series is present giving gold.

Robert Merle also sounds interesting; born in French Algeria before moving to the mainland he worked as an interpreter with the British Expeditionary Forces, sadly captured at Dunkirk, and was a life long Anglophile. The Fortunes of France series has sold more than five million copies worldwide, he's been called 'The Dumas of the twentieth century' and received critical as well as popular success. So thank you Pushkin Press, I'm really looking forward to this one. 

The lovely publicity lady (I should ask if she'd prefer I used her actual name) also suggested 'One Night Markovitch'. One Night, Markovitch won the Israeli equivalent of the Booker Prize when it was first published. Based on true events in history, it is the passionate story of two young men, Yaacov Markovitch (shy, unassuming, perennially unlucky in love) and Zeev Feinberg (charismatic, virile, sex-magnet to women) who, with several others, journey from Palestine on Europe on the eve of World War II to make sham marriages with Jewish women and bring them back to the homeland. The aim being to save the women from the threat of anti-Semitism and bring them to safety. Once back in Palestine, the men and women plan to divorce and get on with their own lives. But Yaacov Markovitch has been randomly paired with the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen. And he refuses to divorce her, despite drastic consequences…

This is a love story, at its heart, but rich and multi-layered and sexy and unexpected in the most memorable way. Exploring unrequited love, arranged marriage, passion & lust, fear and loss this is an extraordinarily evocative novel – both very funny and exceptionally poignant. It’s very difficult to put down once you start….

This sounds great too, but then Pushkin books have always proved worth a second look and taking a chance on - and there you have it, public information broadcast completed. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mamushka - Olia Hercules

I wonder if there's a word, maybe a long German one, for the specific pleasure of finding a new cookbook that particularly inspires you? Doing so is certainly something that makes me extremely happy for, oh so many reasons. 

One of them is covered by this quote from the introduction "...when the conflict in Ukraine erupted, prompting me into frantically documenting the recipes that I was so scared I might suddenly lose. This is the stuff of my childhood, a life that I want to share with you in order to dispel myths about my home country and its surrounding areas, and to give the messy geo-political mosaic a human face." The book does successfully do this, food and the sharing of recipes does this. What, after all, could be more human or inviting, how better to conjure up the spirit of a place than through food and ingredients? 

Whenever, if ever, I've thought about Ukraine beyond it being a name in the news or a place on the map the image conjured has been something grimly soviet (such as you might expect from a child of the 70's bought up with Cold War propaganda about how grim the Eastern block was). It looks like the truth is infinitely more colourful. 

I've had this book for about 3 weeks now, during which time I've been thoroughly enjoying browsing through it, what I haven't yet done is cook from it. I know - poor organisation, but by this time next week I'll be away on holiday and I really can't contain my enthusiasm for another month or so until I get to properly experiment. One of the postponed pleasures will be sourcing a few appropriate ingredients from whatever Polish or international supermarkets prove most accommodating in my immediate vicinity (they're generally pretty good so I'm optimistic about horseradish leaves, the right kind of pickled gherkins, kefir, smetana and so on). 

After that there's a list of things to try but the thing I take a real joy in is beginning to understand the flavours that both define a place and tie it to its neighbours. I'm curious about the pickles; under explored in my kitchen, surprised by all the noodles which I would never have associated with this part of the world. Delighted by the recipes culled from soviet era cookbooks (nutty noodle meringues - who knew?) and charmed by the provenance of recipes with memories of childhood and family life attached. It's a world of food that's intriguingly new to me but one that feels appropriate for the multi cultural city I live in, I'm really looking forward to playing with this book. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Penguin Book of Witches - edited by Katherine Howe

There is a slight sense of shame attached to this book; I got it in time for Halloween last year when I thought it would make appropriate reading. I didn't manage to read it. Then I thought I'd read it for the 30th of April which is (for those who might not know) Walpurgis night, when witches are meant to fly and have their sabbaths on mountain tops. Wikipedia says it's still a thing in Northern Europe but May Day in the UK isn't really a huge deal (bank holiday celebrations and the possibility of Morris dancers aside). Anyway I read the book in time, but did I write about it? No, obviously I did not. 

So here we are with the summer solstice fast approaching (no idea if that's big for witches or not) and me feeling like I must do better. Obviously it really doesn't matter when you read a book, and this one is a serious examination; primarily of the Salem witch trials, with no whiff of trick or treat about it. However there is something about the point when Autumn starts to unmistakably gives way to winter - Halloween, or spring giving a promise of summer - Walpurgis night, which encourages superstition, and makes it easier to understand how some of these things could happen or be truly believed. Or so I find. 

Katherine Howe is the direct descendant of 3 accused Salem witches so it's not surprising that they are the main focus of this book but to put them in context you have to look further back - and she does. Belief in witches, and the legal framework for dealing with them, was something that the puritans took to the new world with them when they left Britain. 'The Penguin Book of Witches' is a collection of court documents and contemporary accounts of witch trials with a useful commentary on each incident. 

The Salem trials turned out to be one of those things that I thought I knew about until I started reading and realised that once seeing a film version of 'The Crucible' isn't the same thing. Seeing 'The Witch of Edmonton' last year at the RSC was rather more helpful, it's very illuminating with regards to early modern attitudes towards, as well as implicit belief in, witches. Back in Salem what's really shocking is the size and reach of the trials - so many people were accused and convicted on what looks to modern eyes the flimsiest of evidence. It's also a surprise to see just how ready people were to believe the accounts of young children without taking any account of their general suggestibility. It's also fascinating to see how the defendants reacted; some seemed to embrace the accusations, others argued against or mocked the authority of the court. A futile but brave choice. 

It's a fascinating look at some of the less appealing traits of human nature, and the more powerful for Howe's choice to deliver her material without sensationalism. Well worth reading (anytime). 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Leicester Book Festival

I should have posted this a week ago because the festival started at the weekend,  but the great thing about the Leicester Book festival is that it's spread over roughly a month. It's masterminded by the brilliant people at the Kibworth bookshop (which is a gem of a place) and is a loose collection of events that take place between the city and the village of Kibworth. It's a great way to do it, much less demanding than an intensive weekend of bookish action, but still plenty for everyone to enjoy. I will unfortunately be on holiday when the Pushkin Press evening is on (I'm really very sorry to be missing this one).

Anyway, for anyone Leicestershire or Midlands based it's worth having a look at what's on and joining in - there's a link to their page Here .

Sunday, June 7, 2015

More on Waverley and Sir Walter Scott

I spent a couple of weeks reading (my by now quite battered copy of) 'Waverley' and more time thinking about what Scott's doing in this book - far to much to fit into one post, so I'm writing another one. Bare with me.

I remember exactly when I began to appreciate how important Scott was - I would have been 8 or 9 and being shown Edinburgh where Princes street is dominated by the Scott monument and Waverley station. Shakespeare doesn't get quite that kind of treatment even in Stratford and because book shops in Scotland almost uniformly have a Scottsh section (in which Scott will feature) he becomes part of the scenery. Studying History of Art he popped up again, both as the inspiration for various paintings, and for his baronial fantasy at Abbotsford. Finally, when I actually got to know the Borders (Scott's home territory) including Abbotsford I started reading his books - and wondered why it took me so long.

Seeing Scott's home, stuffed with objects that celebrate a romantic vision of Scottish history, it's hard not to share his delight in them (at least if, like me, you share his magpie instinct). The story of how when his publishers, in which he had a financial interest, went bust he determined to accept no help but shoulder the debts and write his way out of them (Wikipedia says the equivalent of £9500000 in today's money) suggests that chivalry really meant something to him. It also explains the patchy quality of some of the later books.

'Waverley' isn't patchy though, it's a masterpiece that's well worth exploring. There were two things I was particularly aware of whilst I read it - the way Scott deals with Waverley's radicalisation into the Jacobite cause, and the current political climate in Scotland.

Scott gives us plenty of time to get to know Edward Waverley (his name is apt). He's a romantic and naive youth, his ideas formed by reading, and highlights from family history that include dashing cavaliers and the like. He's a pleasant boy who's grown up insulated by prosperity, and who is in no way experienced enough to understand or deal with the circumstances he finds himself in. History is going to happen to him.

When Waverley ventures into the highlands he takes the hospitality of the people he meets at face value (and why shouldn't he?) most notably failing to understand the ambition that motivates his friend Fergus, or why he himself might be a useful pawn for the Jacobites. As a guest of the Mac Ivor's, Waverley is completely isolated from the outside world, susceptible to the charms of Flora, and through a judicious blend of poetry, tradition, and spectacle encouraged to sympathise with the Jacobite cause. Then suddenly, or so it seems, he's puplically accused of treason, sacked from his regiment, and generally disenfranchised from his former comrades. The reader can better guess than Waverley some of what's happened and how he's been manipulated, but still it's natural that he should turn to his new friends at this point even if his convictions aren't fully engaged. It's a story still being repeated in the news on a regular basis.

After the events of 1745 distinctly Scottish identity, especially in the highlands where the clan system had held sway was rigorously suppressed. The wearing of tartan (or perhaps more accurately - plaid) was banned, especially in the form of a kilt, as was the bearing of arms. Traditional loyalties to clan chiefs were challenged and feudal rights revoked. The highland clearances broke down those old loyalties even further (there are even stories of hard up chieftains selling their clansmen into slavery to fund lavish lifestyles in London). Sixty years on when Scott published Waverley, and certainly by 1822 when he stage managed the prince regents visit to Edinburgh the time was right to reclaim and reinvent some of that suppressed culture. 'Waverley' celebrates it like anything because Scott was keen to preserve what he saw being lost in his own lifetime.

What came as a surprise to me is how familiar Scott's vision of Scotland still is. It may mostly be the Scotland of tourism posters and films, of shortbread tins and postcards - full of stags, purple heather, distant mountains, and bagpipes - along with more complex ideas of national identity and pride, but the roots are all here.

Scott was a committed unionist and for most of 'Waverley' this is a strength. The balance between head which supports the economic prosperity that union with England has bought, and heart which isn't immune to the romantic appeal of the Stuart cause is skilfully maintained right until the end which feels clumsy in comparison. Naturally Waverley must be got off the hook somehow, and his reprieve from a death sentence is apparently based on a true story, but Scott spreads it a bit thick in places and there's an odd moment when he describes a portrait of Waverley and Fergus dressed in tartan at the head of the clan pouring down a glen which could surely only have been seen as a provocative move to commission in 1747 when you'd narrowly escaped being convicted of high treason... Waverley's English money puts things right to quickly for his Scottish friends.

Now that I've had time to think about the book the other thing that really sticks with me is how feminized Waverley is as a character. The way he changes his mind, his relative inaction, his habit of falling over and being injured, the way he accepts his fathers choice of career, and is courted by Fergus and the Prince, not so much for the practical aid he might provide but because as a representative of an influential English family his very presence is enough to suggest support for the cause and reassure some of the doubtful Scots about their reception south of the border. None of this fits the profile of a traditional hero, and it's more noticeable because the two women in his life are so much more dynamic. Flora is committed to her cause to the exclusion of all else, and Rose Bradwardine, the meek and proper maiden who will be Waverley's reward (all he wants in the end is domestic bliss) still has the wherewithal to negotiate for his safety with a bandit, intercede on his behalf with the prince, and shift for herself when her rebel father is away and her home garrisoned by English soldiers. It makes Waverley so much more human, and it also gives Scott the chance to have some fun with him.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Waverley - Sir Walter Scott

I remember being distinctly dismissive of advice in the introduction to 'The Bride of Lammermoor' regarding a reading strategy, but now my time with Waverley is over - it represents my 4th foray into Scott's writing - I'm ready to admit I have indeed formed a strategy for reading him and it helps. 

It's not just Scott, it's basically the same strategy for any 18th or 19th century author I read (I'm looking at you inparticular Anthony Trollope...) but the first thing I need to do is accept that it'll take me a while to get through whatever book it might be. Then it's a question of making time to get to grips with the beast. In this case it took about 75 pages to really get into the story which meant making myself sit and read of an evening and not giving into other distraction. Avoid other distractions; it's not that I find Scott's language particularly difficult, but he's not in a hurry to get through his story or to pile in the action and he takes what I can only think of as the scenic route. It all demands a certain amount of concentration so no picking up other books and so on. I also find it works better for me to read ahead on the notes before I pick the story up again and back on them before I put it down - though in this case I wasn't altogether unfamiliar with the history or politics of either 1745 or 1814 which was helpful. 

In return for this small amount of effort and organisation Scott more than repays me in terms of enjoyment and interest - and this is a point I can't stress enough - Waverley is fun to read. It's also important for all sorts of reasons - the invention of the historical novel in its modern form, immensely influential on literature generally, and then there's Scott's vision of Scottishness and a wider national identity. 

'Waverley' opens somewhere in England (possibly in Worcestershire) with the early history of Our Hero; Edward Waverley of Waverley Honour. He is the nephew and probable heir of Sir Everard, a rich baronet who finding himself unsympathetic to the house of Hanover and the current government, lives a life of pleasant retirement on his estates. His younger brother, our hero's father, has incurred a certain amount of family disapproval by turning his back on their traditional Tory/Jacobite sympathies and pursuing a successful political career. As a politician however he's happy to leave his son in Sir Everard's care as the most likely way of securing the estate. 

Young Edward is educated at home in a haphazard manner, essential doing only what he likes, until his father decides he shall join the army at which point he's dispatched to Scotland as a captain of dragoons to fit in as best he can and armed with letters of introduction to old Jacobite friends of his uncles. Unsurprisingly the rigours of army life soon pall on young Edward so he applies for a leave of absence and takes himself off into this land of romance. Following his inclination and the hospitable demands of his hosts he stays away far to long, and in company quite inappropriate to a young officer in king George's army. Eventually he finds himself in the stronghold of the Mac Ivor's, a clan headed by the charismatic young chieftain, Fergus, and his beautiful sister Flora. Waverley naturally falls in love with Flora, or thinks he does, and is hardly less taken with Fergus, but these two are far more sophisticated than our hero, deeply invested in the hopes of the young pretender, and keen to recruit a wealthy and well connected Englishman to the prince's cause. Eventually after a series of accidents  befall Waverley they succeed, though for Scott's purposes it's important that we understand this is really accidental. 

Early infatuation with the glamour of Bonnie Prince Charlie doesn't survive Edwards first real experience of battle, but by now he has nowhere else to go - he's a traitor to his own government with the very real threat of death hanging over him if he's caught, and dishonour in his own eyes if he abandons the cause he pledged himself to. Meanwhile his family are also caught up in the implications of his actions and supposed actions. And then, eventually, it's a happy ending for almost everyone with the exception of the Mac Ivor's.

The first thing to say is that Scott invests a great deal of humour into 'Waverley' along with a reasonable amount of drama. There are funny characters, and Waverley's habit of falling over and literally being carried off at key moments also becomes something of a running joke as well as a device to make it clear that he's far from master of his own fate. Because Edward is generally laid up with a sprained ankle in the middle of nowhere, or inconveniently snowbound, or otherwise engaged whilst momentous events happen it comes as something of a surprise when Scott suddenly demands a deeper emotional response from his readers, but he gets it - in Waverley's last interview with Flora I cried into my lunchtime sandwich. It's a beautifully done scene - Flora has lost everything she believed in and loved. Home is gone, her brother is to be executed the next day, and she won't even get all of his body back as his head will be displayed on a pike adorning Carlisle castle. The mix of pride, regret, and grief is masterly and in many ways it's a shame the book doesn't end there because the last chapters smack to much of pro Union propaganda to be really satisfactory.